‘Tis Midnight, and on Olive’s Brow

A few days ago, someone asked a group their opinion regarding the meaning of a particular line in a hymn text. I’d not really thought much about the text (sure, I’ve sung it a few times in my life, but that’s about it), but having looked at it more carefully, I think there’s a lot for us to contemplate in it. This is an expanded version of my response to the original query.

“‘Tis Midnight, and on Olive’s Brow” is generally classified as a “communion song,” i.e., one sung before the Lord’s Supper is offered. It is a narrative hymn, much like “Ten Thousand Angels,” or even “We Saw Thee Not.” As narrative songs go, it fits into a category of hymns about the events in the garden of Gethsemane, prior to Jesus’ arrest. Probably the most well-known example of a “garden hymn” is “Night, with Ebon Pinion.”

If we were to sum up the message of this hymn in a single word, that word may well be “loneliness.” The four verses look at the loneliness of Jesus as He was praying in the garden. Loneliness is not something we  normally associate with Jesus, but I think loneliness was a part of what Jesus was dealing with during this pivotal scene, particularly as it progresses.

’Tis midnight, and on Olive’s brow
the star is dimmed that lately shone;
’tis midnight, in the garden now
the suffering Savior prays alone.

The first verse describes the stark contrast between the scene here and the scene just a few days prior. When Jesus entered Jerusalem at the beginning of that week, He was met with the adoration of a crowd proclaiming the coming of their long-awaited Messiah. As the week progressed, however, the enemies of Jesus directly challenged Him; we see less of Jesus among the crowds, and more of Him among His closest followers. Now, in the garden, Jesus is accompanied directly by only three of His chosen disciples, and He is a small distance away from even them, praying to His Father.

’Tis midnight, and from all removed,
the Savior wrestles lone with fears;
e’en that disciple whom he loved
heeds not the Savior’s grief and tears.

The second verse (sometimes excluded from hymnals) focuses in on the fact that even His closest followers had begun the process of forsaking Jesus. We normally think of this happening with Jesus’ arrest and the disciples’ scattering; in a sense, though, these three were forsaking the Lord by sleeping, instead of praying themselves. Imagine the very human emotions the Son of Man went through when He returned from praying and found the three asleep. And then, when He found them the second and third times. They did not yet fully realize what the Savior was going through, or the importance of that moment.

’Tis midnight, and for others’ guilt
the Man of Sorrows weeps in blood;
yet he that has in anguish knelt
is not forsaken by his God.

The third and fourth verses mirror and contrast with the first two. At the midpoint of the hymn, Jesus has been stripped of all earthly companions, and all earthly comforters who might have stood by His side during this scene. The depth of Jesus’ emotional distress at this point is realized by mentioning the sweat as drops of blood (Luke 22.44, figuratively referred to as weeping in blood) and the anguish with which He prays. In spite of the physical appearance of this scene, however, we are drawn to the heavenly picture, that His God—His Father—did not forsake Him in this hour of distress.

’Tis midnight, and from heavenly plains
is borne the song that angels know;
unheard by mortals are the strains
that sweetly soothe the Savior’s woe.

How is it that we know the Father did not forsake the Son in this hour? It was not by removing the cup which He had to drink. Rather, it was by sending an angel to comfort Jesus and strengthen Him (Luke 22.43). This is illustrated in this fourth verse by describing a song of angels soothing the Savior’s woe.

Conclusion

In most narrative hymns (that don’t deal with the life of Jesus), it is common to include a didactic verse—one which takes the narrative and applies it to us. This is generally not needed for narrative hymns about the life of Jesus, since the subject matter is considered worthy of singing on its own, but we ought to consider, what is the application? What do we draw out of this hymn and this narrative account beside it being about Jesus?

We each go through periods of deep distress. Certainly not on the level of what Jesus was encountering, but perhaps overwhelming, nonetheless. There are times when it seems that not even our closest friends are able to offer balm for our woe. When we find ourselves in that position, we must remember that our God will not forsake us. When we go to Him in our deepest anguish with our troubles, He will provide comfort. It may not be anything obvious or expected. There may be something we have to do to access that comfort. But nonetheless, He will comfort us, just as He comforted Jesus in that hour.

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There’s a Fountain Free

The problem that most “invitation songs” tend to have is that they fit very well into the role of an invitation song, but don’t really seem to come up in any other context unless a song leader is specifically leading invitation songs for every song in a worship assembly. In a statement of absolute honesty, I remember the invitation song, “There’s a Fountain Free,” more for the fact that the tenor part sits on a “D” note for most of the song than I do for anything in the lyrics.

While I’m sure most of you aren’t that concerned about the monotony of the tenor line, it is easy for us not to focus on what this song is saying since it is written almost entirely in figurative language. The basic message is an invitation for the audience to come to this free fountain that is opened for all. As a not-so-side note, I’m not sure how we expect visitors and non-Christians to respond to this invitation song (particularly if this is the first time they’ve heard the gospel message) given the figurative language. Let’s spend some time figuring out what it is that we’re singing here..

The primary origin of the symbolism in this song is Revelation 7, particularly verse 17. One of the elders of John’s vision tells John in this verse, “for the Lamb in the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and will guide them to springs [KJV/NKJV – “fountains”] of the water of life; and God will wipe every tear from their eyes.” The idea of the fountain is also used in Zechariah 13:1, where God says, “In that day a fountain will be opened for the house of David and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for sin and for impurity.”

There’s a fountain free;
‘Tis for you and me;
Let us haste, O haste to its brink.
‘Tis the fount of love
From the source above,
And He bids us all freely drink.

In the first verse, we are told a little about this fountain. It’s a free fountain. On one hand, this means that we can have it without cost or limitation, but more particularly, it refers to who may access it. It is fountain “for you and me” and we may “all freely drink.” We are told time and again throughout the New Testament that anyone can come to God. It was (and is) part of the great commission (Mark 16:15). Paul dealt with it several times. In our context in Revelation 7, we’re told of “a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues” (7:9). The scene here shows individuals from the entire world being led to this fountain.

We’re told that this fountain is from heaven and is one of love. In John 3:16, we’re told of the great love God had for the world, a love so great that He was willing to send His Son from heaven on our behalf. God made this fountain available—not because He had to or felt guilty about anything—but because He loves us. The admonition in this verse is to hasten to the fountain. If this is a fountain from God, given in love to all men, shouldn’t we want to take advantage of it?

There’s a living stream,
With a crystal gleam;
From the throne of life now if flows.
While the waters roll,
Let the weary soul
Hear the call that forth freely goes.

This verse refers to Revelation 22:1, “Then he showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb.” Later in verse 17, we have the call of the Spirit and the bride. “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who wishes take the water of life without cost.” I’m not sure if I like the phrasing of this verse, describing a “living stream.” The idea of a living stream suggests more its activity and movement. It does not fully convey what the stream offers or carries: life. Regardless, the soul who is weary is admonished to hear the call to partake of this water. This reminds us of a similar call Jesus issued during His life, for the weary and heavy-laden to come to Him for rest (Matthew 11:28-30)

There’s a rock that’s cleft
And no soul is left,
That may not its pure waters share;
‘Tis for you and me,
And its stream I see;
Let us hasten joyfully there.

This verse seems to break away from the imagery of Revelation; instead, it takes us back to what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 10:4. He said there concerning the Israelites that they “all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ.” God provided for His people on their journey through the wilderness. God makes that same provision today, but it isn’t just for the Jew; both Jew and Gentile can drink from the rock. We should rejoice in this. We’re told to “hasten joyfully there.”

There’s a living well
And its waters swell,
And eternal life they can give;
And we joyful sing,
Ever spring, O spring,
As we haste to drink and to live.

This verse does not appear in many hymnals, perhaps because the imagery is not as directly tied to Scripture. It’s a shame that it isn’t used in more hymnals because of the four verses (this is used as the third when printed), it’s the only one that actually tells us what we get for coming to this fountain. The others extol its universal access and its source, encouraging us to come to the fountain with all haste, but none of the three common verses tell me outright what the benefit is. This one does. We find out that these waters can give us eternal life. This is a reference back to John 4 and the woman at the well. In verse 14, Jesus says, “But whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.” We need to get to this fountain as quickly as possible so that we can “drink” and “live.”

I am reminded of another song about a fountain, the children’s song, “Deep and Wide.” It suffers the same unfortunate fate of not really explaining why we should care about its message. That song simply tells us that “there’s a fountain flowing deep and wide.” There are a number of songs we might sing that express a lot of biblical thoughts—this one is saturated with references to God’s word—that unfortunately never connect those thoughts and express them in a way that is easily understood or that is truly profitable. Jesus has offered to us the water that leads to eternal life. We truly need to “hasten joyfully there” so that we may take advantage of God’s offer.

Making Melody with Your Heart

If you ask a child to recite the books of the New Testament, your chances are better than even that they will say, “Acts and the letter to the Romans.” Most of us recognize this particular phrasing as part of a common song for the books of the New Testament. Bible class teachers (self included) have learned that for some of these children, it is almost physically impossible for them to say those books without saying, “…and the letter to the…” They will say, “and,” between Luke and John, Galatians and Ephesians, Titus and Philemon, Jude and Revelation, and will add them to make “First and Second Corinthians” and even “First and Second and Third John.” Why? Because that’s how they learned to say their books of the New Testament.

This illustrates one of the reasons I believe God instructed us to sing. At the end of Ephesians 5:19, Paul says, “singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord.” A lot of time, breath and ink has been spent in explaining what psallo, the Greek word translated as “making melody,” means in the defense against instrumental music. That’s good, but I don’t know that we’ve spent enough time really reflecting on what it means to make melody with (or in) our hearts to the Lord and how the “plucking” of our vocal cords helps us to “pluck” our heart.

The preceding verse contains the admonition to “be filled with the Spirit.” The parallel passage, Ephesians 3:16, tells us, “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you.” The purpose of our musical worship—other than offering praise to God—is to internalize the word of Christ. When this happens, we are truly able to make melody with our heart. We aren’t just singing words with our mouths, but expressing those same thoughts with our minds and with our very being.

We talk about worship in spirit and truth (John 4:24) being about doing what God asks us to do (truth) and about having a spiritual relationship with God while doing it (spirit). In Ephesians 5:19, both singing and making melody with the heart are actions directed at God.

I think we understand all of this when it comes to our singing. We have these parallel tracks that are running simultaneously in our worship. That’s great, but why sing? Why did God ask for us to do this in our singing? What’s so special about singing that it doesn’t just run parallel to us making melody with the heart, but it contributes to making melody with the heart? After all, we have passages that tell us to talk about God’s law or to give attention to the reading of Scriptures, and surely those activities will allow us to make melody with the heart (and they do). While God never directly gives a reason for this that I know of, I think what we have is another case of God knowing something about the way the universe operates.

Even though I have a degree in mathematics, I still remember the three basic trigonometric functions from a song a high-school math teacher taught us, “Some Old Horse Came A-Hopping Through Our Alley.” The words of the song are a mnemonic device—the initial letters represent the basic trig relationships:

  • Sine = Opposite/Hypotenuse
  • Cosine = Adjacent/Hypotenuse
  • Tangent = Opposite/Adjacent.

Between the absurdity of the lyrics, the fact that it’s set to music (specifically, the tune of the folk song, “The Old Gray Mare”), and the teacher’s imitation of the horse, there are probably few of Ms. Wheeler’s students who don’t remember that song whenever they have to think about trig functions.

We’ve figured out in educating children that if we can set something to music, they are more apt to remember it. The same, believe it or not, is true of adults. Music is an aid to memory. We hear the opening notes to a song on the radio and we know what song is going to play. We hear the opening measures of the Star Wars theme or the theme to Indiana Jones and we know what is about to happen. We remember things from those movies simply on the basis of the music.

Singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs helps us to remember and internalize the thoughts expressed in those songs. When we sing songs over and over again, those words become a part of us. Those words aren’t just vibrating through our windpipes; they’re resonating in our soul and spirit. A curious thing about this is our brain processes words sung differently than words spoken. They are remembered and recalled differently. We may not be able to recite the words of a song by memory, but we can sing them. People with severe memory loss have been observed able to sing along with music when they can barely tell you their own name.

I remember when my grandmother was in the hospital about a year before her death. At this point, she was on the downhill slope of the battle with Alzheimer’s disease. She still knew who we were, but not much else. While my father and aunt talked to the medical staff about her care, I stayed with her in the room. I had my laptop with me, and I played some of the “old standard” hymns I had from my CD collection. For those few minutes, my grandmother was tapping her foot and occasionally chiming in with the songs being sung. My grandmother loved to sing the Lord’s songs, and those songs were probably some of the last vestiges of her declining memory.

Our God does not want our worship to be simply a “show” put on for His or our benefit. He wants our worship to be a reflection of the inner desire to draw closer to Him. What a blessing it is that the worship He prescribes for us encourages that very thing! By commanding us to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, He helps us to make our knowledge of His word and our love for Him an integral part of our being.

And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; (Ephesians 5:18-19, NASB)

Amazing Grace!

You’re watching a movie, and there’s going to be a funeral scene. What song do you hear? If it isn’t a military funeral (where “Taps” would be played), you are as likely to hear “Amazing Grace” as you are any other song. Because of this close association, I heard one sister in Christ say before a funeral that they were glad the song wasn’t going to be sung because of how slow and sad the song is.

Let me be blunt at this point: if you think that “Amazing Grace” is a sad song, you haven’t given more than five seconds thought to the words being sung. It is difficult to get past the first line, let alone all four to six verses (depending upon your hymnal) and think of this as a sad song. Let’s take a look.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.

The first two words convey John Newton’s general sentiment throughout the song. Newton is marveling, absolutely awed, at the thought of God’s grace and what it can do. Newton, much like Paul, had a “chief of sinners” attitude. Newton was heavily involved in the slave trade and even captained a slave ship. The thought that God could save “a wretch like him” after all that he had done boggled the mind.

God’s grace truly is amazing. No matter how or how much we’ve sinned, God’s grace is sufficient for—even greater than, to borrow from another song—our sins. We might be completely lost and caught up in the world, but God’s grace reaches us (to borrow from yet another song).

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!

The fact that God’s grace exists should convey to us the seriousness of our sin. Grace is God providing what we cannot. We cannot overcome sin ourselves. This should terrify us because of the consequence of sin: death (Romans 6:23). Just as the existence of life preservers on the side of a boat should make us cognizant of the danger of going overboard, the existence of God’s grace should make us fearful of the danger of being lost in sin.

Fortunately, God’s grace can relieve those fears just as well as it can raise them. The fact that God’s grace exists to rescue us from that sin—that God is willing and eager to do so—should be a great comfort.

Of course, that grace is only able to truly relieve our fears when we’ve taken advantage of it. If I have fallen overboard, there’s a limited comfort in those life preservers being on the boat. I know that salvation from the sea is possible, but there’s still the danger of drowning if I don’t come into contact with one. Even when the preserver is thrown out, I can only truly be comfortable when I’ve taken hold of it in such a way that I cannot be removed from it until I’m safely back on board.

And how precious that preserver is. When you obeyed the gospel, how did you feel about things? Hopefully, at the moment you came up out of the water, the salvation you received was the most valuable thing that had ever been given to you. Do you still have that feeling? If not, you may want to look into that.

Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

Our faith should grow stronger the longer we follow after God. While at “the hour we first believed,” our faith was based on God’s promise and being able to see God’s faithfulness in His word, we should be able to base our faith in God and His grace from our own personal experience with His faithfulness. We should see His providential care at work. We should be acquainted with Him providing the way of escape from temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13). Once we have “tasted the kindness of the Lord,” we should “grow in respect to salvation” (1 Peter 2:2-3). We’ve seen God lead us through temptations, troubles, and the trials of Satan so far, we should be confident that He will continue to do so to lead us to heaven.

The Lord has promised good to me;
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

God doesn’t promise that we will have riches and pleasure and all the things that the world offers, but He has promised that we will have all that we need if we seek Him first (Matthew 6:33). His providence has ensured that when we follow His will, we will be able to accomplish all that He expects of us. We know that God’s promise is certain (2 Peter 3:9). We should therefore rely on Him throughout our days.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

The comfort to the Christian is that there is more to life than just this life. Paul talked about the promise we have at the end of our life. He said in 2 Corinthians 5:1, “For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” A Christian should never have to fear death. Certainly, we might desire a little more time to see some things through, but ultimately we should be ready to pass beyond the veil. Paul would go on to say in verse 2, “For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven.” No matter how much pain and strife and grief and sorrow we endure in this life, we know that we shall have peace when we can be with God.

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.

It’s all about God. Because God has extended His grace to us, we will have the opportunity and the blessing to be in His presence for eternity. Speaking of amazing things, I’m amazed by all the people who can’t wait for the worship assembly to be over. If we can’t take being together for an hour at a time to worship our Creator, how do we plan to survive an eternity of it? This is what we should be looking forward to!

There is not a single word in this song that is sad. This song describes the triumphant life of one who has relied fully on God’s grace. It describes the blessing of God’s grace to the believer. That is why this song is appropriate for funerals. Unfortunately, we’ve grown accustomed to singing it in the slow, stately manner of a funeral dirge. While it should be sung reverently (as all hymns should), it should be sung joyfully—joyfully for the departed saint who is now “at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8), and joyfully for our hope to follow them—all because of God’s “Amazing Grace.”